What is the first thing you typically do when you check into a hotel? Maybe you look up the Wi-Fi password. Maybe you check out the hotel’s dining options and room service menu. Maybe you see if the hotel has a gym or spa.

What if you could simply ask your questions out loud in your hotel room and get that information easily and instantly? Amazon Echo is slowly being introduced in the hotel industry, with the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa beta testing the use of the Amazon Alexa voice service for its guests.

Voice-activated data interfaces such as Apple’s Siri, Windows 10 Cortana, Android’s Google Now, and the Amazon Echo are becoming familiar voices of nascent artificial intelligence (AI).

Many people are already using an Amazon Echo in their homes. Now, big players in the hospitality sector are thinking about integrating AI-driven, voice-activated interfaces into their guest experience. An online interface connects guests to Amazon’s Alexa, who responds to vocal prompts to provide on-demand music, video content, audio books, and weather and travel information, as well as hotel-specific information.

However, integrating AI into hotels is still in the earliest stages of its implementation.

The Clarion Hotel Amaranten in Stockholm, Sweden, announced in October that it was the first hotel in the world to fully incorporate Alexa into its suites. The hotel used tech company Edge DNA to customize Alexa so guests can ask for hotel information, play music, or order a taxi. The hotel also plans to further integrate Alexa so that in the future, guests will be able to control the lights, lock the doors, or order room service by prompting their wishes out loud.

The only other known hotel using voice-activated devices is the Aloft chain, specifically its two properties in Boston and Santa Clara. Aloft Hotels announced the availability of voice-controlled rooms at those two locations in August, with more to follow. However, Aloft rooms aren’t controlled by Alexa. Instead, each room has an iPad with a custom Aloft app that connects to accessories like the room’s thermostat and lights, which are integrated with Apple’s Homekit.

Voice activated AI like Alexa goes one step beyond using apps and touchscreen controls, with guests simply speaking commands out loud.

Only a trio of hotel properties are using Amazon Echo and San Antonio’s JW Marriott is in its initial stages of testing Alexa in select hotel rooms. Once the hotel completes the technology’s pilot test, it will be able to confirm the full implementation of Amazon Alexa at the hotel property.

“At this time, we are in the preliminary stages of Phase 1 of our testing of this platform,” Mario Bass, JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa director of sales and marketing, told the Rivard Report.

A test run prior to fully implementing AI makes sense for a hotel property as customizing Alexa comes at a considerable cost in software backend services that ensure a user can access the hotel’s specific database via the Amazon Echo. Adding in the potential costs of switching over to smart controlled hotel thermostat and lighting systems, maintaining and updating the devices, and keeping these devices secure, helps explain why integrating AI into hotel properties has not yet become a widespread trend.

Amazon has not gone on record about developing dedicated hospitality applications for the Echo yet. However, Amazon stresses that Alexa was built to be open so that developers and companies can integrate “her” into their products and services, building new “skills” such as playing music, answering questions, or setting alarms or timers. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos has stated that it was “just the tip of the iceberg,” when he announced in May that 1,000 people already worked on the Alexa Echo product line, with 400 more hired in late 2016.

Right before the holidays, I booked a room at the JW Marriott Resort for a night’s stay with my family and asked if I could test-drive the Amazon Alexa.

One User’s Experience: “Alexa, ask the JW…”

When we checked into our room, the first thing I did was wake the Amazon Echo Dot unit by calling out “Alexa.”

What I didn’t know was that I needed to access the hotel specific database by saying “Alexa, ask the JW…” Our room was missing the small, fold out card that explained this and the list of possible questions about the hotel we could ask.

Once we got the card delivered to our room, we started to ask Alexa “to ask the JW” about its restaurants. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a list of potential dinner spots or menu descriptions, so I used my cell phone instead. Once we had picked a place, I confess that I logged points by using the Open Table app on my phone to make our reservation.

The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa has customized the Amazon Echo Dot unit with a limited database of hotel specific questions.
The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa has customized the Amazon Echo Dot unit with a limited database of hotel specific questions. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the Rivard Report

I thought I’d ask Alexa if she understood Spanish. I did this in English and Alexa replied, “I speak fluent English and pig Latin.” Ah, AI humor.

When I attempted to ask Alexa if she understood Spanish by asking her in Spanish, however, she replied, “Hmm, I can’t find the answer to the question that I heard.”

It turns out Alexa has more than 1,400 skills. Potentially, the list of what Alexa can accomplish for a hotel guest can run the gamut from ordering room service or extra towels, to checking out late and booking reservations at a hotel restaurant. In the future, there is the potential for Alexa to listen to, respond in, and even translate from different languages.

For now, Alexa only speaks English.

We quickly figured out which questions we could ask Alexa and which ones needed the trigger phrase, “Alexa, ask the JW.”

For extra towels, ordering room service, and inquiring about checkout times, Alexa asked the JW, and we were able to avoid using the room phone.

For everything else, we asked Alexa.

“Alexa, play ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,’” resulted in the song playing from Spotify, albeit at a tinny volume. “Alexa, raise the volume,” made the tinny song play louder, but not loud enough to pose an issue for guests next door.

(The Amazon Echo Dot is the lowest priced unit in the Amazon Alexa line at only $49, which explains the sound quality from its speakers.)

The effective range for the Amazon unit was calibrated well for the room’s size. I could wake Alexa with the trigger word as soon as I entered the room, but not from the hallway. A nice feature would be for Alexa to connect the guest with a live hotel operator for more information, using the Echo Dot’s speakers, but this feature is not yet available.

My son asked Alexa to tell him a bedtime story. Once we enabled that skill – Alexa will tell you with voice prompts how to do this – she proceeded to tell a short story using my son’s name. In his estimation, the story was “lame,” so don’t rely on Alexa to keep your children engaged with an engrossing story while you shower.

Amazon Echo can read your Kindle ebooks to you out loud if that specific book is formatted for compatibility with the Echo when you log into your personal Amazon account.

We soon ran out of hotel-specific questions for Alexa to ask the JW. After finding online lists of popular culture-themed “Easter eggs” in Amazon’s Alexa, I annoyed my family by asking Alexa seemingly nonsense questions, such as “Alexa, what does the fox say?

Alexa made me realize AI still has a long way to go. When I asked Alexa to “open the pod bay doors,” her mechanic delivery was no match for the chilling voice of the onboard computer Hal 9000 in the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not Hal, and we’re not in space.”

When asked if she could sing, Alexa responded with a verse from “Jingle Bells.” My son asked Alexa if she had a boyfriend.

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I try to be friends with everyone,” Alexa responded.

It turns out one of Alexa’s skills is playing rock, paper, scissors. She beat me every single time.

Final Thoughts

With the Amazon Alexa in only a few hotels, it could potentially replace the phone and alarm clock in hotel rooms if its use becomes widespread.
The Amazon Alexa could potentially replace the phone and alarm clock in hotel rooms if its use becomes widespread. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the Rivard Report

Voice-activated commands will likely become the ultimate user interface and shape the next computer revolution.

Over the next three to five years, artificial intelligence will inevitably transform how businesses operate and deliver added value to their customers. Using powerful means to process massive volumes of data, while learning and adapting to user requests based on new information and reducing human input over time will drive how businesses evolve in their approach to customer service.

For now, hotel managers comfortable with the technology are the ones most likely to give it a try. The JW Marriott Resort’s general manager Arthur Coulombe has one in his home, so he wanted to give Alexa a trial run at the hotel.

“Many hotel managers typically don’t go out and buy a device to try it out,” digital product consultant Kaustubh “KV” Vibhute said. “They won’t see the value until they use it themselves. The beauty is that you don’t have to navigate the voice mail menu when calling downstairs. It (Amazon Alexa) can replace so many apps – for news, traffic, weather, directions – so you don’t have to use your cell phone or laptop.”

The potential for a seamless, tech-driven hotel experience is exciting, but not yet fully realized. Until then, it’s good to know Alexa can easily recite science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...